In the national debate about oversight and funding of charter schools, Memphis is at the crossroads of efforts to use charters to move students from bad public schools to classrooms with higher-quality seats.

Since Tennessee began authorizing charters in 2003 to bring innovation to its low-performing schools, the sector in Memphis has mushroomed to nearly 75 schools overseen by either the local system or state-run district. Though the performance of charters has been spotty thus far, most agree that their presence has been a catalyst for improving the city’s traditional schools.

At the same time, oversight of the growing sector has been inadequate, prompting Shelby County Schools to seek state funding and national help to develop a stricter accountability system for its charter schools. The state’s charter-reliant turnaround district also has faced scrutiny — but few consequences — for its mostly lackluster performance. And local education leaders have increasingly blamed charter schools for siphoning off both students and funding from a local district that already is struggling with enrollment and strapped for cash.

Memphis takes the national spotlight on Tuesday when the NAACP holds its second of seven public hearings across the nation on the impact of charter schools on public education. The hearings are sponsored by the National Task Force for Quality Education, which the NAACP created after the civil rights group in October approved a moratorium on charter expansion to study issues related to the sector’s transparency, accountability, funding and discipline practices. Subsequent hearings are planned for Detroit, New York City, Los Angeles, New Orleans and Orlando.

“In our communities in Memphis and around the nation, public education has always been the fountain of opportunity and we’ve got to ensure that in our attempts to improve it, we don’t unintentionally let it run dry,” said NAACP CEO and President Cornell William Brooks. “Ensuring that underfunded districts are not disparately impacted by the growth of charters or privatization has always been a priority for the NAACP.”

Debate over the moratorium has underscored the divide among civil rights groups over the best direction for improving school options for poor and minority students.

The issue gained even more scrutiny when President-elect Donald Trump picked Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos for U.S. education secretary. DeVos, who will begin confirmation hearings this week, is a passionate advocate for school-choice mechanisms such as charter schools and tuition vouchers.

NAACP Tennessee State Conference President Gloria Sweet-Love presents the state’s response in October to the national NAACP board’s call.
PHOTO CREDIT: Laura Faith Kebede

In addition to being a national battleground city for school improvement efforts, Memphis is home to one of the nation’s largest NAACP chapters. Three Memphians sit on the organization’s national board, and Gloria-Sweet-Love, who presides over the Tennessee State Conference, is on the 11-member national task force. A few weeks after the national board’s vote, she called for action nationwide to keep charter schools in check but also defended Tennessee’s charter sector.

Sweet-Love said Monday that the NAACP wants to use the panel’s hearings to shine a light on district funding and charter school accountability.

“We want to make sure schools are equitably funded and the kids that need the most have the resources there for them,” she told Chalkbeat. “We should not be starting a new charter school if there’s not enough funding.”

Sweet-Love says charter schools can bring innovation to traditional schools but that accountability measures must keep pace with the sector’s rapid growth. “Charter schools have sprung up everywhere so I think it’s important we make sure they all show transparency and accountability,” she said.

Maya Bugg, CEO of Tennessee Charter School Center, says the state’s charter school laws are stronger than most states on accountability and oversight. She hopes the NAACP’s task force will recognize the nuance.

“It’s not one monolithic culture of charter schools nationwide,” said Bugg, who plans to participate in Tuesday’s hearing. “Memphis is on the cusp of a education renaissance. (The hearing) is an opportunity for us to think about where are we? Where are we going? And what schools have helped us get there? Charter schools have been a nice piece of that puzzle to strengthen education.”

Charter schools are publicly funded but independently operated. Tennessee law allows only nonprofit ones that are authorized by local districts or the state.

“We are all public schools all working toward public good,” Bugg said. “I think it would be a misstep for us to put an end to or limit schools and systems that are working for our students. And some of our charter schools are doing that. Tennessee is a model.”

The task force’s first hearing elicited four hours of passionate debate last month in New Haven, Conn., where charter advocates and detractors discussed the merits of charter schools for minority students in particular, whether or not charter schools take away resources from traditional school districts, and if a majority of black and Hispanic parents even want them.

The task force plans to present a preliminary report to the national NAACP in May and present full recommendations at its July meeting in Baltimore.

Invitees to the Memphis hearing include:

  • Malika Anderson, superintendent of the Achievement School District
  • Teresa Jones, school board member, Shelby County Schools
  • Carol Johnson, former superintendent of Memphis City Schools and former director of schools in Boston and St. Paul, Minn.
  • Earl Watkins, chairman of Mississippi State’s NAACP education committee
  • Merwyn L. Scott, director of minority community organizing and partnership, National Education Association NEA
  • Maya Bugg, CEO, Tennessee Charter School Center
  • Patrick Washington, director, Promise Academy
  • David Pickler, co-founder, American Public Education